An estimated 1 in 3 children — roughly 800 million — around the world are poisoned with lead at levels associated with decreased intelligence and developmental challenges, a new report by UNICEF and the environmental nonprofit Pure Earth revealed.
Lead leaks into drinking water sources, fills the air in the form of dust particles, and contaminates foods, predominantly impacting people living in low-income countries and impoverished communities. This cumulative pollution has caused a global health crisis that undermines the future well-being of children across the globe, heightens inequality, and diminishes the potential of entire societies, according to the report.
The United Nations is calling for a globally coordinated effort to end this threat.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said in a statement. “Knowing how widespread lead pollution is – and understanding the destruction it causes to individual lives and communities – must inspire urgent action to protect children once and for all.”
Lead has been widely used for thousands of years because it’s malleable and easy to melt. Early printers used lead for text, gasoline was mixed with lead to prevent wear-and-tear on engines, and manufacturers added lead to paint to accelerate drying and increase durability. In the past several decades, scientists have learned of the harmful effects of lead on the human body, particularly children, and its use has dramatically declined.
Today, lead enters the environment in a number of ways, all of which are preventable, according to the report
Lead-acid batteries account for 85% of the lead used in the world. The number of vehicles bought and sold in the past few decades has skyrocketed, causing an increase in the amount of used and discarded batteries. In places such as the United States and the European Union, around 95% of lead batteries are recycled in safe and sustainable ways.
Middle- and low-income countries, meanwhile, often lack suitable recycling infrastructure and used batteries usually get processed by informal, open-air operators that don’t have proper safety protocols in place. As a result, lead seeps into the soil, contaminates drinking water, and is directly inhaled and carried on laborers’ clothes.
Water systems with lead pipes are another major source of pollution. In the US, the scale of the problem became widely known following the Flint water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Overall, an estimated 6.1 million US homes get tap water that travels through lead pipes.
Lead is also found in paints and pigments, frying pans and other cooking tools, food cans, spices, cosmetics, medicines, toys, and various other products. In countries with little or lax regulations around lead, the sources of potential contamination are countless.
As lead accumulates in the environment, children are uniquely vulnerable to its effects.
Children absorb four to five times the amount of lead that enters their bodies as adults. They also consume more food, water, and air per unit of body weight than adults, and their still-developing blood-brain barriers allow more lead to enter their brains. Since children play outdoors, they’re often exposed to more lead in the soil and air.
Children exposed to unsafe levels of lead for prolonged periods of time can experience profound and permanent neurological effects that make it harder to thrive in school, pursue careers, and navigate adulthood. Lead exposure accounts for around 10% of intellectual disabilities globally, the report notes.
The lead crisis is concentrated in Africa and Asia, but it also occurs in Central and South America and Eastern Europe, and poor communities in high-income countries such as the US, the report notes.
In fact, 94% of the disease burden (years of well-being lost) occurs in low- and middle-income countries, and the health consequences from lead poisoning have grown by 40% between 2000 and 2017.
The report calls for a “six-pronged approach” to combating this crisis.
First, countries have to monitor and report the problem by expanding blood testing, providing treatment to affected communities, determining sources of lead pollution, and cleaning up contaminated sites.
Next, countries have to prevent lead poisoning by banning its use in all commercial products that could come into contact with children, ensuring food is shielded from lead contamination, and investing in recycling infrastructure to prevent environmental pollution. The massive investments needed to modernize waste management will require global coordination and assistance, the report notes.
Health care facilities have to become better equipped to deal with lead poisoning, both in terms of identifying and treating the problem. Public health campaigns and legislation around lead poisoning can further protect communities.
Finally, countries have to work together to track the problem, find alternatives to lead, and share resources. If the fight against lead receives the attention it deserves, then all countries will benefit, the report argues.
“The return on the investment is enormous: improved health, increased productivity, higher IQs, less violence, and brighter futures for millions of children across the planet,” said Richard Fuller, then president of Pure Earth, in a press release statement.